By Nicki Karimipour
The thigh gap is everywhere—on social media sites, television, in books and clothing catalogs. It was even rumored that Beyoncé digitally altered photographs posted to her Instagram so that it appeared as if she had a thigh gap. Most of you know that a thigh gap refers to the empty space between a woman’s legs, supposedly a signifier of thinness and a highly coveted body shape trend among young women, especially with avid social media users.
In February, this body shape trend was featured on the Dr. Oz Show as the author of a new book called The Thigh Gap Hack defended a “diet plan” that promises women that sought-after space between their legs. In March, Target was forced to face the Photoshop fiasco that garnered a great deal of controversy when they unrealistically altered a swimsuit model to have a thigh gap. Shortly after, it was discovered that Old Navy had Photoshopped a plus-size jean model to have a thigh gap. Attention to this trend has reached a cultural apex as young women become inundated with media messages about this unrealistic body ideal.
Achieving a thigh gap can be nearly impossible through diet and exercise, as it is determined by genetics and bone structure. However, many young women online are under the impression that the body shape is attainable, mostly through unhealthy means such as disordered eating patterns and exercise. In my research as a PhD student in mass communication with a Masters in journalism, I’ve studied social media use, feminism, and body image. I recently completed a content analysis study investigating Twitter users’ opinions about the thigh gap. A sample of 500 tweets written in English over a three-month period were collected and examined, in which it was found that 68% of the Twitter users expressed approval or positive reinforcement of the thigh gap trend. During the course of the study, many individuals—men and women—had strong opinions on the issue of the thigh gap that they expressed on their Twitter accounts.
Social comparisons with other Twitter users and celebrity figures was a common theme found in the tweets. Some users view the thigh gap as attractive and aspirational—their bodily “thinspiration,” with Victoria’s Secret models like Candice Swanepoel and Miranda Kerr as physical embodiments of corporeal perfection. Conversely, there are users (mostly young men from the U.S.) whose opinions range from believing the thigh gap is unimportant, to repulsive, to ridiculous: a uniquely female-driven obsession.
The level of psychological internalization and buy-in among young women about these new thin ideals is particularly worrisome. Having recently completed this study, a few observations and takeaway points came up:
- Twitter is becoming a new outlet for individuals to discuss their experiences with disordered eating without fear of judgment. Much like the pro-ana and pro-mia websites and message boards of the 1990s and 2000s, social media is increasingly becoming a place for people to congregate online to discuss conditions and issues that would be stigmatized if the communication were solely face-to-face.
- Some of the thinspiration content circulating on the Internet is very concerning. Social media platforms such as Instagram have even banned certain types of thinspiration content, and blogging platform Tumblr provides a warning and contact information for eating disorder counseling and crisis intervention organizations when users search for “thigh gap” or pro-eating disorder content.
- Many Twitter users are using third-wave feminism to justify their disordered eating. Interestingly, Twitter users seem engaged and passionate about using feminist discourse and concepts to explain their adherence to extreme thinness, citing it as their “choice” to control their weight through unhealthy means. Conversely, some Twitter users used feminism to explain why they were anti-thigh gap, and believed that the trend was harmful and undermining to women.
- The overwhelming majority of social media users who express approval or internalization of this body image trend are young, white females, and some homosexual men as well. African-American women largely do not express interest in the trend, but with music icon and feminist figure Beyoncé (and her supposed thigh gap) currently in the media, African-American women who view her as a role model may shift their attention toward this body shape ideal. Though this has not yet been studied empirically, it would be a worthwhile endeavor to find out if and how these body ideals are influencing females of various races and ethnicities. Past research has shown a link between celebrity obsession and poor body image (Maltby, Giles, Barber, McCutcheon, 2005).
The most significant factors for influencing body image are self-esteem and personal empowerment, which have been used in eating disorder prevention programs (Peterson, Tantleff-Dunn, Bedwell, 2006). The immense pressure on young women to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty has been a constant facet of the Western feminine experience. Body shape trends that have gone viral on social media, like the thigh gap, have the power to influence the body image of young women globally. Though the research area focusing on social media and body image is still developing, sites like Facebook may contribute to risks associated with disordered eating, especially for women who are more appearance-conscious and prone to social comparisons online (Mabe, Forney, Keel, 2014).
Being aware of what conversations take place on social media platforms and what messages are being disseminated online can help school administrators, psychologists, and parents recognize disordered eating symptomology. Understanding the purpose of media—particularly advertising—can help individuals build resilience against negative media messages that reinforce unrealistic norms and ideals. As for social media, understanding the self-presentation mechanisms that motivate “friends” and followers to portray themselves in the best possible light can help individuals discern between reality and what people want others to see.
Nicki Karimipour is a PhD student and an instructor at the University of Florida.